Civics and Citizenship Education

 

A Reply by Neville Jennings

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In Issue 36 of Education Australia, Kevin Donnelly presented a personal view on The Macintyre Report. Better known as Whereas the People ...Civic and Citizenship Education, this report prepared by the Civics Expert Group in 1994, has stimulated much discussion amongst educators and civic leaders. As Mr Donnelly points out, 'there is much in the Macintyre Report that is worthy of support'. However, when Mr Donnelly expresses his concerns about the report, he reveals his true colours as a Latter Day Don Quixote tilting the products of his pc at politically correct windmills.

Let us examine some of Mr Donnelly's concerns about the Macintyre Report. One concern is about the weight which is given to two key documents: the Mayer Committee's competency number eight on 'cultural understandings' and the national curriculum profile 'Studies of Society and Its Environment.'

We have to wait some time in the article before we learn what is so insidious about the eighth competency and the notion of 'cultural understandings' for we are first treated to a dialogue on 'values' in which the views of British sociologist M.F.D. Young are criticised. I'm sure that members of the Civics Expert Group would be surprised to learn that Young's views have had such a profound influence on their collective educational philosophies. The Macintyre Report is accused of failing to address perceived differences over what is meant by 'active and informed citizenry'. It is my view that authors of the Report deliberately sought to generate discussion on that point. Mr Donnelly seems to suggest there is only one view on this and that it is not negotiable. Mr Donnelly is worried that the education for active and informed citizenry may expose children to subversive concepts such as 'social justice', 'equity' and 'ecological sustainability'. I would personally be very worried about any program on civics and citizenship education program which didn't address such issues. The very issue of who should be an Australian citizen cannot be divorced from issues of just treatment, equitable access to the nation's resources and custodianship of the land.

Regarding the eighth Mayer competency, Mr Donnelly claims that the document presents a 'left wing' bias on matters educational and cultural. Apparently the document adopts a definition of culture which 'uncritically celebrates diversity'. The 'Cultural Understandings' document is also charged with adopting a relativistic view of culture in which 'there are no fixed boundaries to cultures' and 'cultures always change.' Once again, Mr Donnelly seems to be yearning after certainty in an age of rapid social change. Are we to believe that 'right wing' thinkers don't accept change at all?

Feeling the need to state some enduring cultural qualities to substantiate his argument, Mr Donnelly suggests 'the desire to be rational' and 'desire to care for and protect the young'. Does he honestly suggest that these are the exclusive preserve of one culture only - the monopoly of people from an Anglo-Celtic heritage? Are they not enduring qualities of most cultures? We are warned about embracing diversity because that would supposedly force us to accept practices such as female circumcision and burning of wives on funeral pyres. This is of course an extreme view. Acceptance of cultural diversity doesn't mean that we have to accept every practice associated with specific cultures. Early Britons were known to have some unhealthy bathing habits but we don't use that knowledge as a basis for rejecting Anglo/Celtic culture in its entirety.

We are then told that the 'Studies of Society and Its Environment' (SOSE) profile contains a socially critical bias. Apparently some un-named critics believed that early drafts of this profile were 'political correctness gone wild' and Mr Donnelly quite predictably finds the final version to be biased. In what respects? It seems that ' multiculturalism is promoted as being beyond dispute'. My own interpretation is that the multicultural nature of Australia is beyond dispute. Each of us may have concerns about the application of multicultural policy but that is a different thing. Mr Donnelly also seems to question the assertion that Australia has always been a multicultural society. Yet even before the arrival of Europeans, this land was inhabited by a multicultural populace.

Mr Donnelly is concerned that the SOSE document celebrates plurality and diversity. He is worried that no common culture is recognised. Apparently he is thinking this should be an Anglo/Celtic culture and laments that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are given too much exposure. We wait with bated breath to see what that common culture entails. Some readers of the document, like Mr Donnelly, search in vain for a comprehensive treatment of Australia's mainstream Anglo/Celtic cultural tradition and here's the rub. What is that tradition and why are we so concerned about the mainstream? Terms like 'mainstream' perpetuate the politics of exclusivity and difference. At this point in our history we should surely be looking for inclusivity.

When asked to outline their views on the mainstream culture, commentators like Mr Donnelly often point to concepts such as the Anzac tradition of mateship. But this involved mateship by whom? It is my view that the concept of mateship could well be a useful principle binding the nation together but not a 'blokey' type of mateship which is the unique preserve of Anglo/Celtic men who worked in shearing sheds before heading off to Gallipoli. I am talking about a concept of mateship which is also shared by members of the Country Women's Association; the type of mateship which was demonstrated by Vietnamese Boat People as they escaped from their homeland to come to Australia; the type of mateship that binds Aboriginal communities together; and the type of mateship between young women which is portrayed in Bob Hudson's classic song 'Girls of our town'. The ANZACS don't have a monopoly on mateship.

Kevin Donnelly and his ilk are yearning for a sense of certainty. They are yearning for a definitive Anglo/Celtic culture which never really existed in Australia. The same views are being expressed by proponents of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party in the political arena. By constantly talking of the mainstream they are consciously or unconsciously practising the politics of exclusion and such a view cannot be tolerated in our society; certainly not in our education system. We need a liberal democracy in which Mr Donnelly can express his view freely. However, we also need to come to some agreement on the brand of liberalism we are prepared to accept. We need to protect the right of Mr Donnelly to respect our Anglo/Celtic traditions but we must also work towards the acceptance of a mainstream that is much more inclusive. That is where the Macintyre Report was on the right track.

Donald Horne was also on the right track when he put forward a basic set of principles on which all Australian citizens may agree. Writing in The Australian on November 15, 1996, Horne suggested that the following ideals may be sufficient to form the basis of a civic compact: 'Respect for the rule of law, for the equal rights of Australians under the law, for the principles of a tolerant liberal democracy, and a commitment to a custodianship of the land we share.' If we were feeling in a generous mood, Horne suggests, we could add a commitment to strengthening Australia as a fair society, devoted to the wellbeing of the Australian people. These principles would be inclusive of many different cultural viewpoints. This, however, assumes that Australia is ready to accept a liberal form of citizenship. Consequently, Australian educators need to have a solid grounding in educational and political philosophy. In a post-Macintyre era the ground should shift towards the issue of providing appropriate professional development for teachers and, if necessary, we'll drag Don Quixote along with us.

Neville Jennings is an educational consultant living at Wollongbar, on the North Coast of NSW. He also lectures in social education at Southern Cross University.

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