Asia, Australian Schools & the Renovation of the Australian Mind


Peter Kell


Since the end of the cold war the geo-political boundaries, which had divided the world since the Russian Revolution in 1917, have been replaced by the new geographic divisions existing within capitalism. The divides between communism and capitalism which had segmented the world for almost fifty years have now been replaced by divisions that represent the trading blocs of a global capitalism. These new trading blocs are clusters of countries amalgamated into economic alliances to promote the movement of capital and goods without restrictions across the globe. The globe itself is instead being partitioned into economic confederations such as the European Union, the North American Free Trade Alliance and the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation Forum. These alliances, which are closely linked to the international agreements on finance and tariff reduction, have become 'supra national' entities.

Membership of these blocs is highly sought by countries needing to access the expanding export markets of global capitalism. The new demarcations are, in fact, proving to be problematic for Australia because our trade is being effectively locked out of markets in Europe and North America. Australia is also trapped in a tenuous relationship with its Asian neighbours, uncertain and hesitant about whether it should see itself as an Asian nation at all. It is this ideological uncertainty which will ensure that Australia continues to be left out of the new period of Asian nationalism and prosperity centred around China.

The deepening relationship that has been gradually developing with many Asian nations since the early 1970s has been severely damaged by the re-emergence of a groundswell of paranoid racism surrounding Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party. Hostility and hesitancy in the face of these global developments now places Australia in grave danger of being isolated and excluded from the new economic developments in central Asia and China.

In his recent book Is Australia an Asian Country?, former Beijing ambassador and China expert, Stephen Fitzgerald warns that Australia is missing out on the strategic coalitions necessary for economic survival because Australians have failed to recognise the urgency of constructing meaningful links with Asia. Fitzgerald argues that Australia's so-called commitment to Asia is, in fact, not 'one of the mind' and highlights a failure of 'both governments and the total spectrum of Australian elites' to establish the trade and cultural links that are essential for economic survival.

Fitzgerald believes that the future will be determined by the extent to which Australians can apply their minds and intellectualise the engagement with Asia and chides Australia's laziness in neglecting Asia for so long. He suggests that while Australians believe much has been achieved, in real terms Australia has stood still in relation to Asia. While many Asia observers view Australia as part of the region there is clear evidence that Australians themselves lack an intellectual interconnectedness and have been unable to adjust to the new realities of Australia's economic and geographic location.

The mainstream perception of Australia's place in the world still stress links with the imperial heritage of Britain and the cultural and military alliances formed with the United States during World War 2 and the Cold War. Fitzgerald argues that this has to change if Australia is remain relevant in world terms.

Education: Changing the mindset.

Education will have a special role in developing what Fitzgerald refers to as 'the total refurbishing of the Australian mind' necessary to bring Asia into the mainstream of Australian perception. The response to 'Asianising' Australian schooling must transcend the current 'bolt on' Asian studies programs which encompass 'orientalist studies' with a curriculum which incorporates an integrated approach to Asian Literacy by embedding specially developed programs in the everyday activities and studies of the school. This is a precondition for the acquisition of what Fitzgerald terms "Asia Literate" students.

Asia literate students would be armed with knowledge through sustained rigorous and in-depth learning and be exposed to Asian societies which challenge them to review their own society. They would be able to understand the cultural framework of Asian societies in a similar way to those of British and American societies, having a knowledge of the history, culture, geography and literature which allows them to critically evaluate commonplace perceptions of Asian countries and events. This knowledge would enable them to function in an Asian society and communicate without embarrassment and be informed of those political processes in Australia that influence Australia's interests in Asia. They would be able to enjoy engagements with Asian societies and people and utilise this Asia literacy to attain employment outcomes.

An 'Asia literate' school facilitating these outcomes would have an integrated, planned and holistic view with explicit goals detailing the outcomes for the school and the community. Such an approach would incorporate Asia in the curriculum at all ages and in all subjects. It would not necessarily mean that 'Europe has to go'; merely that European centredness must move over to make room in the curriculum for such a focus. In such a school Fitzgerald suggests there would need to be some study of Asian languages which integrates with the overall aims and direction of the school. There would also need to be programs for students who have minimal interest in the language areas which allow them to embrace sport, craft, technology arts and media and other facets of everyday life.

Most critical is the requirement for interaction with Asia on a consistent and regular basis, using links with communities resident in Australia as a platform for such interaction. This is where Australia's multiculturalism provides direct advantages to school communities. Ideally such interactions should involve local business and local government and incorporate exchanges, immersion programs and genuine efforts to explore issues of mutual interest and controversy. Finally and most important higher stages of development in such a school would incorporate joint teaching and joint decision making structures to secure a collaborative process. These are major challenges for a schooling system saturated with British and American ideals of education that are to some extent inappropriate for the regional context in which Australia is now situated.

Cowra: Futures Past.

This task, of course, should not be a new one. It is, in fact, already being addressed to varying degrees in schools, TAFEs and universities across Australia. One successful example can be found in the small rural town of Cowra in Central Western NSW, some 300 kilometres from Sydney. Here, the Asianisation of this small rural community illustrates how goodwill, friendship and collaboration can lead to productive partnerships in the face of the most traumatic circumstances.

During the Second World War Cowra was the site of a prisoner of war camp that held German, Italian and Japanese prisoners. On the night of 5th August 1944 over 1,000 Japanese prisoners conducted a mass breakout. In the ensuing melee and confusion 231 Japanese prisoners and 4 Australian soldiers lost their lives. Fearful of the disgrace of being captured many of these Japanese soldiers had committed suicide.

Saddened by the futile loss of life and respectful of their sacrifice, local members of the Returned Soldiers League tended the graves of Japanese soldiers with great care and consideration. After the war these acts of reconciliation attracted the attention of the Japanese Consulate who were seeking a suitable site for the internment of the Japanese war dead in the Australian mainland. Cowra was selected as the site and a traditional Japanese cemetery was located close to the site of the old prison camp.

As a result of these events Cowra and Japan became at one time part of each others past and futures, as delegations and families paying their respects to their dead relatives and comrades established enduring collaborations and friendships with the local people. As a monument to this friendship, extensive Japanese Gardens were established, incorporating a study and information centre. In the near future the cemetery and the camp site will be linked by a Sakura avenue that is bordered by cherry blossom trees.

These friendships are now necessarily embedded in the fabric of the Cowra community and the local High school is an integral part of this broad response. Cowra High School is presently celebrating its 27th year of student exchanges with Seakei Senior High School where students spend from three to twelve months in their respective host countries. Students are thoroughly prepared for this exchange, with Japanese language instruction being conducted from years 7 to 11. There is a high level of acceptance of these programs in the community with support provided by Rotary International as well as the community itself. The local government is a strong supporter of sister city projects with Japan and a wide range of cultural and language exchange schemes exist at Cowra High School and are supported by such organisations as the Japanese-Australia Foundation, the Tokyo Municipal government, Australian Field Scholarships and numerous Japanese and Australian businesses.

Japanese students from Junten High School Tokyo spent 6 days in Cowra as part of the 50th anniversary remembrance ceremonies in 1994 . The 100 strong contingent came at the prompting of their school Principal who wanted Japanese students to gain a broader understanding of the Pacific War than was available in Japan. Cowra High school has clearly provided a forum for controversial issues to be critically analysed, something that Stephen Fitzgerald argues is a crucial factor in a mature international relationship.

This close relationship has had significant benefits not only to individual students but also to the community. Cowra is now a major tourist location with people coming from all over the world to see the tranquil Japanese gardens. These developments have provided the community with an industry to replace the declining agricultural industry base. Students have gained a wider selection of career opportunities spanning the diplomatic corps, airlines, language instruction, tourism, interpreting, counselling and working overseas in Japan. This range of career options is wider than would normally be expected for graduates of a small rural high school and illustrates some of the advantages of globalisation for small communities.

The irony of this is that the 'Asianisation' of schools is clearly not new. In the mid 1960s the late Bill Easson the founding Principal of Ku-ring-gai High School placed the establishment of a closer relationship with Asia as a core school principle. In a period when school mottos and symbols reflected the British heritage of Australia, Easson's school motto 'Harmony in Diversity' and the selection of a work by Bengali poet Rabindrath Tagore as the school poem, provided a pioneering international focus which remains uncommon even today. It is interesting to look at Easson's foreward in the 1967 Ku-ring-gai High School magazine in the era of the Vietnam War and at a time when China was not recognised by the Australian government.

The foreword reads: 'The emphasis on Indonesia, our closest neighbour, springs from the belief in Australia's destiny as a bridge between the east and the west. In 1968 there will be a similar emphasis on Japan. Because of this emphasis, it is significant that we should, this year, have established a 'twin school in Osaka, the Horuyo Municipal High School. I hope that, as we move through the re-examining three years of the six year plan, we shall see an exchange of students with a number of countries.'

Easson's internationalism was lost to the state system with his retirement but was revived at the International Grammar School in Sydney where his message of tolerance and internationalisation still continues today.

Both of these schools are vivid illustrations of Fitzgerald's message to Australian schools that administrators and teachers should closely consider as models for Asianising the Australian school system.

Since the election of the Howard government Australia's relationships with its near neighbours in Asia and the Pacific have deteriorated markedly as many of the paternalistic attitudes that typified the colonial era have been revived and reinstated at a Government level. A more mature relationship will depend greatly on the development of a more informed relationship that spans all groups in the Australian community. Schools, TAFE Institutes and Universities have a critically important role in this process in not only providing the basis for tolerance and understanding, but also providing the structural links for long term collaborative partnerships of mutual interest. It is a theme and a challenge that offers significant new horizons and opportunities for all educators and students.

Peter Kell, Associate Professor & Head of Department of Industry, Professional and Adult Education, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.


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