Cleansing the narrative: on censorship in schools

What kind of national narrative are we attempting to create for the next generation? This is the question we must consider whenever a government proposes stricter controls for books in schools, as Victorian Minister for Education James Merlino did recently. Why would we silence discourses challenging perceptions of who we are, when we could promote our national diversity and its representation, and foster critical interrogation of the world around us?

There has been a surge of public outrage following Merlino’s interference with the Victorian Curriculum and Assessment Authority’s (VCAA) processes – but the degree of alarm is quite remarkable considering how comfortable Australia has been with state censorship in times gone by.

The Australian government has a long history of censorship restriction: importation of ‘questionable’ texts was restricted right up until the election of the Whitlam government in 1972. Until that moment, Australian immigration officers were empowered to confiscate texts that the government deemed inappropriate for Australian readers. Hundreds of these titles have since been discovered by Dr Nicole Moore in the National Archives of Australia – a testament to the extensive control that was exercised by customs during the period. It will come as no surprise that the group who pushed most fervently for the changes brought in by the Whitlam government were in fact the artistic community, whom the censorship mostly affected.

In a modern context, censorship of the individual voice does not seem to hold the same menace as the threat that was felt in the immediate wake of the fall of the Soviet Bloc. With the political changes of that period came the knowledge of the extent to which government can control citizens and information, as demonstrated by the censorship cases that occurred under the GDR, and continue today in such places as China and Russia.

Of course, social anxieties are always heightened where children and young people are involved. While the censorship Moore uncovered in Sydney was atrocious (and equally fascinating), how would such a discovery resonate within our community had the secreted-away texts been primarily aimed at children?

This latest Victorian censorship concern trumps the changes to internet censorship in 2008, the banning of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho in the 1990s, and William Powell’s The Anarchist’s Cookbook – which is still banned – due to the fact that it concerns reading materials for young people. Not only is this list recommended reading for ‘impressionable minds’, it is also a mirror of ourselves – the Australian adult community, and of what we collectively believe is essential reading for future generations, and what should form them as people.

As such, the list is vulnerable to the onslaught of adult anxieties surrounding child rearing, the free flow of information, and discourses concerning political and cultural difference. This is why a discussion which was supposed to promote rigorous debate among the Australian public about how best to represent Australia’s multicultural narrative, as well as conflict in the world today, led to an artificial tightening of censorship controls over the text selection process. (I say artificial, because while there will be changes to how the selection process can be interpreted by the VCAA, that change will not alter how texts are selected. Such a minor change will not really censor the VCAA, but more easily allow for texts to be removed, should they be challenged. In other words, the changes will allow the government to remove a text which has caused sufficient controversy in the community, say with a play like Tales of a City by the Sea.)

However, the censorship threat remains: the Australian government has never needed much in the way of prompting when it comes to restricting challenging narratives, and this is a problem which only increases in a context of cultural pluralism, and in times of economic and social change. In times like those we are now experiencing, the wider public needs to make a decision concerning how we want our stories to be told.

Subduing cultural complexities in the narratives that tell Australian students about who they are does not promote inclusion or depth of thought. Rather, it breeds ignorance of the social and political debates that will determine what the future looks like. Take the recent instances of ‘blackface’ in the media (Alice Kunek, the Frankston Bombers), or the growing casual racism in our social vernacular (as demonstrated time and again by Eddie McGuire and his gaggle of white male followers, or the attacks on Adam Goodes, or the resurgence of One Nation) – all symptomatic of an increasingly whitewashed discourse.

If the only texts many young Australians come into contact with are from the school curriculum, we need to remain vigilant: a tightening of ‘community’ control over this list can so easily become cases of historical whitewashing and revisionism. Removing a text from the VCE curriculum based on politically biased opposition to its perceived or alleged content is a continuation of our country’s attempts to ‘pull the wool over our eyes’ and ignore the realities of cultural and political difference, as well as the world’s complexities, which the next generation will inherit upon their graduation.

Let us take this opportunity to take a frank look at ourselves in the mirror of the VCE curriculum and in the midst of this most recent censorship controversy and ask ourselves, do we have the courage to show the next generation a more complete story?

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Brinagh Hassett

Brinagh Hassett is a PhD candidate at Deakin University researching the effect of retrospective sanitisation on discourses in children’s fiction.

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