Kevin Donnelly, who joins Ken Wiltshire in Christopher Pyne’s education review, sees our National Curriculum as ‘too secular’ – he wants Australia’s ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage to be strongly represented in what students learn. But ‘Judeo-Christian values’ are an ideological rather than historical reality, with the term itself only appearing around the 1950s. Conceptually, the term insufficiently recognises Eastern and Hellenic influences in Judaism and Christianity, and doesn’t account for the other great monotheist tradition – Islam.
Really, the Judeo-Christian values touted by Donnelly are a narrow band of very modern Catholic and Protestant ideas.
It’s unfortunate, because learning about the values that underscore and predate the modern Christian West would be exciting for school students. It would be worthwhile to teach the cultural links between the west and east from pre-Christian Hellenistic times, through to Eastern Christian Churches of Asia Minor, the Middle East and Ethiopia, to the European Middle Ages and Renaissance and so on. Moreover, the four pillars of the first human-centric and rational civilisations – Greece, Israel, China and India – all need serious investigation, especially as China and India reassert their importance on a global level.
I take pride in being part of a Hellenic, or western, tradition extending over 2500 years, but I am sceptical of Christianity and, for that matter, most religions and their irrationality. Yet, in a democracy (in the tradition of our Athenian predecessors) we respect different religions, and their cultural, creative, literary, and philosophical traditions.
A great work of art is a very human endeavour, even if the artist believes he or she has had a religious epiphany. As we pay homage to the European and British democratic and rational revolutions of the last 400 years, we should not forget that they revolted as a reaction to Christianity’s strictures on individual freedom, scientific enquiry, free expression and the rise of the secular state.
I once visited the ancient capital of China, Xi-An, as part of a delegation; my hosts showed me steles dating back to pre-Christian times. They were written in Hebrew, Greek, Hindi and Mandarin, and demonstrated the links between West and East that predate Christianity and the modern European and British Empires.
Indeed, assessments of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman histories, arts, literatures and values requires a far deeper examination of Asia, Asia Minor, the Middle East and Africa. If taught these, Australian students – aware of their nation’s diverse western heritages – would engage with the Middle East, Africa and Asia with a sense of intellectual dignity, historical perspective and respect.
To start with, we could reutilise the established and ancient connections between east and west already found within Australia’s multiculturalism.
Paul Cartledge, the AG Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge University, says the British public school system owes more to Sparta and Athens than to Christianity. The late Thomas McEvilley, the most distinguished historian of Greek and Indian philosophies, has written tomes on the transference and connectivity of ideas between Greek and Indian civilisations over thousands of years – way before any form of Anglo-Saxon identity was born.
It is certainly the case that, as the American teacher and humourist Leo Rosten said, ‘A conservative is one who admires radicals centuries after they’re dead.’ Pyne, Donnelly and Wiltshire fit the bill: their review will anoint great ideas and people that were once radical.
How, for instance, will they look at the Magna Carta, that attack against royal decree and the beginning of the new West? What of the secular utilitarian philosophers and fathers of British liberalism, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill? How will we examine the great republican revolution against the British Empire and birth of the United States of America, the apotheosis of Western values, under the stewardship of Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and others considered treacherous radicals by the Imperial British?
Then, of course, there’s the French Revolution and the western values of liberty, equality and fraternity. How will they fit the review’s narrow Christian view of the world? Or Hegel, Marx and Weber, fathers of social democracy and modern socialism in modern Europe?
Will we examine the settlement of British and non-British peoples on Australia? What of Jewish, Greek and Italian sailors on the first fleet? How will the early contributions of Afghans, Indians, Japanese and Chinese immigrants, and Pacific Islanders be assessed?
What of the Eureka Stockade, was it not a revolt premised on western values? The women’s vote and gender equality fit in the western tradition, but how do they fit in the worldview of Christian or other religious patriarchies? Will we revise our historical brutality towards Indigenous Australians? The Aboriginal civil rights movement was centred on western values of rights and freedoms.
Pyne wants to re-energise Anzac Day, once a sombre reflection on the waste of life from a failed Imperial operation. Like John Howard, he wants to reestablish it as the first test of nationalism. Yet, in the Second World War, Australians fought for survival, democracy and nation. It was in the Second World War that Australians were bombed by the militarist regime of Japan in Darwin, and were abandoned in Singapore by the British. The Turks never attacked us.
But royalist conservatives like Pyne are more about kowtowing to the Brits than Australian patriotism. In the Second World War we did not fight for empire; it was a fight for Australia against the totalitarian regimes – the Japanese in the Pacific and the Nazis in Greece and the Middle East. In Crete, the Australian troops, abandoned by their generals, were taken into the resistance as brothers, and, in the minds of Greeks, defenders of universal freedoms and democracy. Our involvements in Afghanistan and Timor Leste can be perceived as actions in support of liberty, freedom and equality. Possibly even our involvement in Iraq, although that is a polarising subject.
The education review will not be a process of reflection on western values, philosophy and politics, arts and literature, but a reinvention of a very limited right-wing Royalist Australian agenda.
Perhaps when we have a Chinese-Australian prime minister with a Buddhist background and secular values, fluent in Mandarin, English and Bahasa, schooled in ‘Western’ and ‘Asian’ histories, the issue of educational values will be less charged.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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