An essay after Christchurch

29th April 2019

There was considerable praise for the leadership shown by the PM of NZ, Jacinda Ardern, in the wake of the Christchurch tragedy. The consensus was that her response demonstrated the compassion, empathy, respect and dignity that her nation instinctively assumed. There was nothing fake. There was also a hard-edged determination evident. She was able to reassure her country, and the world beyond New Zealand, that what happened at Christchurch did not represent what New Zealand was as a nation or New Zealanders were as people. Her response, and that of New Zealanders generally – particularly in relation to the support shown to the Muslim community – demonstrated the complete rejection of the hatred that drove the killer. In her powerful defence of New Zealand values, she was helped by the fact that the gunman charged with the murders was not a New Zealander.

Our own political leaders instinctively lent their unqualified support and emphasised the close ties between our two nations. We assumed that it was our tragedy as well, not just in the sense that we have always been so close but also in the sense that we recognised that the tragedy could so easily have happened here. Most tellingly, it was also our tragedy because the perpetrator was Australian.

The international media, beyond their amazement at how New Zealand coped and became even more tolerant and united, focused extensively on the links between the killer and the ‘dark web’. They emphasised how easily and effectively he had been able to live stream the killings. They also traced the way the internet had nurtured and fashioned his agenda and they pointed to the global network of white supremacists, neo-nazis, ethno-nationalists and all the other like-minded fringe groups flourishing on the internet. The same reporting also exposed the massive deficiencies in the self-regulatory regimes of social media empires. Christchurch demonstrated, yet again, that the management structures, organisational objectives and operating cultures of these social media giants are inherently contradictory, generally compromised and too often ineffectual. Further, their platforms can be exploited, despite the ongoing reassurances, by the very worst actors and agencies. The consequences, as Christchurch demonstrated, can be catastrophic.

At the more local level, principals In our schools had to make sense of the tragedy for their students. They had to underline the evil of the killer’s actions, reaffirm all the values to do with tolerance, support and empathy and also provide the critical reassurances of safety and security.

We need to ask if there are substantive lessons for our educational leaders. At the very least we need to examine the total disconnect between the actions of the killer and the educational values we hold.  Christchurch was a complete rejection of everything our schools represent. The single most significant feature on which to focus was the killer’s murderous assault on multiculturalism.

For the first half of the 20C Australia was one of the most racially and culturally restricted nations in the world. The very creation of the Commonwealth of Australia took place against the absolute determination to keep Australia white, and British. Then from the end of WW2 the White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled and under slogans such as ‘populate or perish’ Australia undertook an incredible transformation to become, by the start of the 21C, one of the most racially and culturally diverse nations in the world. Moreover, the change brought incredible national growth and development and economic success. Both the speed and apparent ease with which this transformation took place were remarkable. Australia had remade itself, at hardly any cost – or so it seemed – in less than 50 years.

But Christchurch challenges all our assumptions about how successful, quick and easy the monumental change to a multicultural society has been. Moreover, the challenge extends well beyond the dreadful event at Christchurch. In the world generally, we see nations abandoning principles of diversity and tolerance and embracing the appeal of narrowly defined nationalism and populism. We see autocrats and demagogues of all kinds, even in liberal democracies, exploiting race, ethnicity and religion to win political support. Nations look back to some idealised ‘golden age’ in their history. Calls for national sovereignty and national identity or religious and cultural purity are excuses for exercises in exclusion and oppression. There are cases of ethnic cleansing and even genocide. The toxic religious fundamentalism of ISIS and its brutal terrorism have shattered trust and confidence everywhere. The ethno-nationalism that destroyed Europe in the 1930s is back in vogue and it is even acceptable to parade as neo-nazis. Conspiracy as a political theory has become mainstream. Migration of virtually any form is portrayed negatively, as a threat to national identity, and to the economic interests and culture of the original population – however that is defined – particularly of those already disadvantaged or ‘forgotten’. Much of this paranoia and fear is directed at Muslims and, increasingly, Islam is portrayed as a dire threat to ‘Western Civilisation’.

Further, as already noted, this swamp of confusion, anger, insecurity and fear is nurtured by the technology of our times. So-called social media has been exploited by hostile states to corrupt the democratic process and undermine people’s confidence in democracy itself. It has become the preferred tool for abuse and attack of our political ‘leaders’. In some nations it is used to promote mob rule and murderous vigilantes. It has also created vast troves of personal data that can be sold on and exploited for commercial profit and political advantage. The internet has  provided the anonymity for conspiracy and idiocy to thrive. And now we are seeing in single-party states like China the same technology employed, on a nearly incomprehensible scale, to control the behaviour, thought and access to information for whole populations.

Prior to Christchurch it was easier to ignore the social division and political discord in the rest of the world and see Australian society as more tolerant and easy-going. It was the place, like New Zealand, where people were not going to stress over anyone’s cultural background or their religion because, in a real sense, everyone came from somewhere else. People just needed to accept differences and simply ‘get on’. But then in March this year an Australian male went into 2 mosques in Christchurch and, in a planned and systematic way, proceeded to murder as many of the worshippers in the mosque as he could: men, women and children, young and old. He styled himself as some sort of soldier who was at war with Islam and he killed these people – and he would have continued to kill if he had not been stopped – solely on the basis that they were Muslims. He knew his victims were soft targets and that he could kill large numbers of them quickly and easily. No doubt his mental state will be analysed in detail but the act was certainly planned in detail and carried out in a methodical manner. He boasted of his killings and live-screened his murders to draw even more attention to himself. He also hoped that the video would encourage others to copy his actions.

Against this background, it is important to remember that over the past thirty years, led by the Commonwealth, educational jurisdictions across the nation – State, Catholic and Independent – have formally committed themselves to sets of National Goals. The first version of the goals was issued in 1989 – The Hobart Declaration on Schooling. The second came with the 1999 Adelaide Declaration on National Goals for Schooling in the Twenty-First Century. The most current is the 2008 Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. As significantly, the goals have received bi-partisan political support, at all levels of government.

The experience of schooling, the delivery of the curriculum, and the curriculum itself must reflect the agreed goals. The belief is that the pursuit of the national goals will bring positive outcomes, not simply in terms of educational benefits for the individual student but also in terms of the broader welfare of the immediate community served by the school, then, further out, the wider society and, finally, the nation as a whole. Such ‘nation building’ – as envisaged in the Adelaide Declaration – is paramount:

Australia’s future depends upon each citizen having the necessary knowledge, understanding, skills and values for a productive and rewarding life in an educated, just and open society. High quality schooling is central to achieving this vision.

The ideal of Australia as a diverse but tolerant (multicultural) society has been a constant national goal. For example, the Adelaide Declaration called for a socially cohesive and culturally rich society.

Further, there have always been warnings of the power of discrimination and division. For example, the Adelaide Declaration specifically warned against … the effects of negative forms of discrimination based on sex, language, culture and ethnicity, religion or disability; and of differences arising from students’ socio-economic background or geographic location.

Individual educational jurisdictions have crafted their own companion policies and directives based on the agreed National Goals. For example, South Australia has recently published (2017) the South Australian Statement on Public Education in South Australia. When it came to the national goal relating broadly to cultural diversity and social cohesion, this particular statement cast the goal as a positive:

Since the public education system is available to all, South Australian public schools are sites of rich social and cultural diversity. International research shows that the greater the social mix of a school the better the educational outcomes, so the diversity of public schools enhances achievement for all.

 In addition, this diversity delivers significant personal and social benefits for public school students. They can interact with peers from a wide range of backgrounds, and learn from lived experience to appreciate and respect difference. Such understanding is crucial to the development of the skills and dispositions needed to maintain and enhance a diverse yet cohesive multicultural society.

Other supporting material can be more direct. For example, the NSW Multicultural Education Policy reflects a more ‘non-negotiable’ approach. The policy … responds to the cultural, linguistic and religious diversity of NSW. It commits schools to providing opportunities that enable all students to achieve equitable education and social outcomes and participate successfully in our culturally diverse society.

 The policy is explicit in terms of the actions schools need to take against the threat posed by racism:

Schools foster student wellbeing and community harmony through the provision of programs and practices which counter racism and discrimination.

 Schools provide teaching and learning programs that develop intercultural understanding, promote positive relationships and enable all students to participate as active Australian and global citizens.

 Schools ensure inclusive teaching practices which recognise and respect the cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds of all students and promote an open and tolerant attitude towards cultural diversity, different perspectives and world views …

The Australian Curriculum features the same focus on multiculturalism. The General Capabilities of the Australian Curriculum cover the same range of values, dispositions and behaviours already identified. There is even a specific capability – Intercultural Understanding – which focuses on the development of the full range of understandings, values and dispositions required in our complex, contemporary, multicultural society:

Intercultural understanding stimulates students’ interest in the lives of others. It cultivates values and dispositions such as curiosity, care, empathy, reciprocity, respect and responsibility, open-mindedness and critical awareness, and supports new and positive intercultural behaviours. Though all are significant in learning to live together, three dispositions – expressing empathy, demonstrating respect and taking responsibility – have been identified as critical to the development of Intercultural Understanding in the Australian Curriculum

Beyond the formal declarations, aspirations, policies and the curriculum itself, we know that in the world of everyday reality our schools have been very successful in restricting discrimination based on sex, sexuality, disability, race, ethnicity and  religion. Violence, of any form or degree, directed against anyone: student or teacher is not accepted. We believe that every student has the fundamental right to a quality education and, equally, must have the opportunity to succeed in their schooling. Everyday practice is that the ethos and culture of the school reflect support for all students, particularly those disadvantaged, or facing specific needs. Schools also definitely reflect the Nation’s commitment to a multicultural Australia. Overall, our schools promote a tolerant, fair, compassionate multicultural Australia where the focus is on creating a cohesive, democratic and high-functioning society in which individual talent and effort are rewarded and everyone is given the opportunity to excel and contribute.

However, as argued, the events at Christchurch were totally at odds with this version of educational reality. Christchurch was the absolute denial of multiculturalism. So, not surprisingly, educators are left reeling and unable to reconcile the two realities. How could a 28 year-old Australian – the self-declared killer – who attended school in Australia and who would have finished school round 2008, and who was therefore definitely of the generation exposed to the many declarations of our National Goals of schooling, arrive at the point where he can murder so many, in such a premeditated manner, solely on the basis of religion?

Principally, the explanation of the disconnect lies obviously in the difference between the world of the school and the world both after and beyond school. In the world after school, the previous high levels of ethical direction, support and enforced expectations all dissipate. The individual can become more insular, cut off from others and less certain about everything. Their expectations can be blunted. Failure, in all manner of fortunes and experiences, can become commonplace.  Associations can become more singular and tribal. They can be exploited and manipulated.  Concurrently, in the world beyond the school gates, politicians routinely exploit issues to do with race, ethnicity and culture. They casually demonise ‘outsiders’ and those whom they infer ‘don’t really belong’. They create fear and then exploit it. Prejudice and bigotry are held as rights. In the words of a former Attorney General everyone has a right to be a bigot; and there are votes in bigotry. Dog whistling is a national sport and many in the media do not even bother to whistle. They simply rant and posture, somewhat like the traditional schoolyard bully. And, as noted, on the internet, readily available, are all the conspiracy theories – most cluster round racism and misogyny – that fill the space when fear and bigotry run unchecked and it becomes even normal to entertain the most extreme views and behaviour.

There is also the possibility that, as educators, we have been naive. For example, for the last 3 decades, we have taken a strongly positive line on the new digital or information technology. We saw it as a positive force for social change in many powerful ways. We saw it ushering in new pedagogy for schools. It was critical for ‘self-directed’ and ‘personalised’ learning. Every student had to have access to a digital device.

This positive attitude to the new technology was specifically reflected in the National Goals for schools. For example, the Adelaide Declaration of 1999 argued that our students needed to be confident, creative and productive users of new technologies, particularly information and communication technologies, and understand the impact of those technologies on society.

 The same positive tone appeared in the  2008 Melbourne Declaration:

Rapid and continuing advances in information and communication technologies (ICT) are changing the ways people share, use, develop and process information and technology. In this digital age, young people need to be highly skilled in the use of ICT.

However, 3 decades on it is worth asking the question about the real impact of these technologies on society and without being too brutal it is worth noting that indeed the Christchurch killer was highly skilled in the way he was able to share, use, develop and process information and technology.

Perhaps we have also been naive in the conviction that the fundamental shift in Australian society – from white monocultural Australia to multicultural Australia – has been achieved so effortlessly and so quickly with only minimal social dislocation. Ironically, some of the naivety comes from the fact that Australian History is so unknown, even in our schools. Many do not even know about or understand the significance of the White Australia Policy. Nor does it help that the study of our history has itself been politicised and beset by culture wars.

There are real tensions and divisions in our society. They are definitely exploited and supercharged by politicians, media shock jocks, outside forces and other actors, but their geneses are real and they need to be addressed. In many ways Australia represents an experiment in sociology never before seen on such a scale. There is no going back but the way ahead is not as certain as we might wish.

The state school has been the critical institution in the success of the profound social transformation. However, perhaps it too has bee taken for granted. Recent politics, backed by extensive research, has pointed to the long-standing under resourcing of schools serving the most disadvantaged communities and, invariably, these are the very state schools on which we have relied most to create the New Australia. It is fair to begin asking pointed questions on the social and economic consequences of under resourcing the very schools on which we rely most.

There is another potential problem with educational priorities. Currently, there is a preoccupation with measuring academic performance – of the individual student, the school in relation to other (like) schools, and whole systems at all levels, national and international. Such measures are then employed to drive performance; and there is a current obsession with under-performance at the international level in key subjects. Can this preoccupation with academic performance in any way diminish the importance of – or direct resources and effort away from – the quest for the very outcomes envisaged in all the various declarations of national goals for our schools. As a reminder, the Hobart Declaration (1989) called for schools:

To develop knowledge, skills, attitudes and values which will enable students to participate as active and informed citizens in our democratic Australian society within an international context

In 1999, the Adelaide Declaration referred to the fundamental quest for a  socially cohesive and culturally rich society and declared that

Australia’s future depends upon each citizen having the necessary knowledge, understanding, skills and values for a productive and rewarding life in an educated, just and open society.

Finally, the 2008 Melbourne Declaration stated that:

Schools play a vital role in promoting the intellectual, physical, social, emotional, moral, spiritual and aesthetic development and wellbeing of young Australians, and in ensuring the nation’s ongoing economic prosperity and social cohesion.

 Given the emphasis on active and informed citizens, the realisation of an educated, just and open society and the nation’s need for ongoing social cohesion, how do we identify and measure such desired outcomes; how do we set targets and how do we go about lifting them? How do we compare individual schools and school systems? What are the equivalent outcomes in other countries’ education systems or do such outcomes only really apply to Australia and a handful of other nations?

We can drill down even further. For example, what recognition do we/ should we give to the school whose pervading culture and practical, everyday programs and specific interventions have significantly promoted social cohesion and tolerance in both the school and the wider community, and also countered the drift of students, influenced by forces external to the school, to any form of extremism? And there are all manner of related questions about how do we ensure that schools that face the real challenge of social cohesion have the resources they require; and how do we support leaders and teachers in these schools? Admittedly, schools always need to pursue the best academic outcomes for their students but the realities of contemporary Australian society mean that schools generally, and some in particular, must strive for far more than academic results.

It is also worth noting that to the extent that the standing of schools in our community is weakened – and this includes the welfare, status and authority of the teachers and leaders in the schools – the overall level of social cohesion will be compromised. If our schools are unable to hold the best teachers and the best leaders their overall effectiveness will be weakened. This is particularly the case for state schools which we will continue to rely on as the single most important institution in delivering the sort of Australian society we have declared as our goal.

Finally, we cannot afford not to respond to Christchurch. At the very least, we need another explicit, unambiguous and realistic ‘declaration’ about the goals of our schools and their absolute centrality to the realisation of the New Australia. We need a declaration that will support our schools and all who work in them. It needs to reinforce what we stand for as a nation and who we are as a people.

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