The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

After Corby:Confronting Australian Smugness

© Duncan Graham 2005

When fundamentalist terrorists started their bombing campaign we all struggled for answers.

How could anyone loathe us so much that they’d want to kill people they’d never met?

President Bush said it was because they hated our great lust for freedom and democracy. That may have resonated with his electorate but for us it sounded a bit overblown.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said it was because the terrorists had a mean and narrow view of the world derived from their religious education. Now that made more sense.

The fundamentalists, according to this theory, had been educated in Islamic pesantren, or boarding schools. Former US ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz said: ‘What they’re taught there (in pesantren) is not real learning. It’s not the tools for coping with the modern world. It’s the tools that turn them into terrorists.’

Minister Downer talked about ‘religious based schools where at least in some cases, extremist doctrines are taught and people are recruited.’

The idea that narrow religious education produced crackpot bombers offered a handy explanation for fundamentalist violence. It was all the fault of the loonies’ shallow view of the world and their simplistic, illogical and racist attitudes.

Of course we Australians are not prey to such tragic ignorance.

The rock of our education system is that it should be free, secular and compulsory.

Although up to a third of our kids go to religious schools these follow a state-controlled curriculum that is constantly under review. Most of these schools are Christian presumably promoting love, tolerance and respect – as do the government schools. Many of us think our education system is world class.

We train our children in independent thought through rational processes. They learn about multiculturalism, the rights of others, the structures of a civilised society and the need to make it better. These are not optional add-ons, but core values.

From an early age our children learn about logic and reason, to check the authority of all sources, to ask questions. Not for them the mindless parroting of ancient texts. In short, they are trained to think. We once labelled this education as ‘broadening the mind.’

As teachers, as communicators, as professionals we should be able to look Australian society in the eye and say with pride: You are the best educated, the most learned and informed of all generations.

That’s how it was. But that was before the Corby case ripped down the front fence, tore off the doors, broke open the windows and showed what a flimsy, flawed house we’d built and where we lived in such smugness.

Most Indonesians I know are absolutely bewildered by our reaction to this case. Serious commentators want Indonesia to issue travel warnings against visiting Australia.

Their view of Australia as a generous and disciplined society where reason, logic and fairness rule, has been blown apart. A major reappraisal of their neighbor is underway. The most polite phrase is that Australians are kekanak-kanakan; childish.

It’s obvious that the people who said ‘you can see she’s innocent’, who spat out hatred, who demanded back their tsunami donations, who threatened Indonesians must have been educated in the same pesantren that produced the tunnel vision loonies.

They could not be graduates of our modern, comprehensive, professional education system. They could not have passed through our devoted and well-trained hands.

They could not have sat in classes where we taught respect for culture, the wonder of difference, the beauty of logic, the need for proof, to be critical of messages manufactured by the media and to beware the duplicity of politicians.

But of course the truth is that they were our students and that we have not done our job well. Our abilities as teachers and communicators have been tested and we have failed.

Xenophobia and racism have not been eradicated in Australia. They thrive in a fertile environment that prefers emotion to fact, simplistic solutions over reasoned argument. The ethos of One Nation didn’t disappear – it just hibernated. We are still a Northern Hemisphere people uncomfortable in the south and anxious about our neighbors.

We have not confronted and defeated our primitive fears about Asians and the Threat from the North. We have not proved our theses of civilisation to our students. When migrant families are excluded we are still a monolingual nation.

So do not ask for whom the bells toll.

They toll for the bright hopes we once all held for a better world built on education and our ability to effect real change.

But they also toll another message.

Unless we are to abandon our most cherished beliefs and yield to the forces of unreason we must eyeball our failures and try again – this time to do better.

We have to challenge ignorance at every step. We have to be outspoken every time the voices of hate break out. We cannot appease or be silent. We have to continuously argue that there are many ways of looking at the world which deserve consideration.

To understand cultures we have to master other languages as all Europeans and Singaporeans must. Not just play with a few words and phrases, but become really fluent.

For this we need a national language policy, a commitment to make Australia not just a clever country but also a literate land where every graduate is bi-lingual.

A year ago the Australian Parliament published a long report urging more people-to-people contact with Indonesians. Instead our government has issued more and more travel warnings.

Led by politicians proclaiming that we are just so much better that almost everyone else from sport to warmongering, lawmaking, medical research and managing the economy, we’ve failed to notice the hidden message.

We continuously tell ourselves we are the best; but the flip side to this claim of triumph is that everyone else must be stupid and wrong.

As a sporting society we think in terms of a playing field where international rules apply. We are the winners of the World Cup of Life – so they must be the losers.

Such unfit people, failed nations and weird social systems must therefore be treated with contempt and suspicion.

When they question our beliefs they have to be challenged – violently if necessary.

But isn’t that just how the pesantren-trained fundamentalist behave?

Overturning this awful, ugly, doom-laden view of human society is going to demand that we review the way we teach other languages and cultures.

We can do this by presenting Indonesian history, language and society not as them versus us, but as a separate, valid ways of looking at the mysteries of life.

Personal enrichment is the great and lasting reward for those who approach the world with an open mind. What better gift can we give the generations to come?

(Edited version of a speech at the ASILE Conference in Perth, July 2005; published in The Jakarta Post 14 July 2005)


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