Educating Asia To Australia: It's Not Just About Languages

Ahead of this soon to be released Asian Century White Paper, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has said Australia must “understand Asia” in order to prosper.

Devoting a speech to the Asia Society on behalf of Prime Minister Julia Gillard in New York he argued that we’ll need Asia-literate policies and Asia-capable people.

Ken Henry, who heads the Asian century taskforce, has also argued that Australians need to, from their earliest years, acquire the cultural and linguistic literacy to “function more efficiently in an Asian-centred world”.

So how do we prepare Australians who attend universities today for this new world? Without a fluent people they argue, we can’t reach Australia’s full potential from the Asian century.

However, while learning a foreign language undoubtedly improves one’s cultural awareness, it represents just a part of the mystery. What we need is to integrate Asia to curricula more widely, not simply compartmentalise it into different areas of study.

More Than Asian Languages

Its cuisine may be regularly sampled, its people part of normal life and its own exports a fact of life, but Asia as a natural route for our ambitions is an alien concept.

We do not advocate that Australia emulates the Asian manner of schooling, dominated by rote learning, especially in maths, reading and science. As Education specialist Stephen Dinham asserts this strategy does not necessarily translate to greater creativity and innovation.

But universities can play a greater role in assisting Australians feel comfortable with our location in and relationship to Asia.

Understanding Asia

But you might ask, is that not exactly what courses teaching Asian languages and Asian history do.

But it needs to move beyond compartmentalisation of knowledge concerning Asia and include Asian themes into all types of classes, whether talking the way Asia is represented in mainstream advertising, or becoming more acquainted with Asian languages’ cadences at a class on network radio.

Students need help to move beyond the clich├ęs. A course on the Indian media and film industry, by way of instance, needs to present a full picture. One that does not just examine Bollywood but appears at shows such as Satyamev Jayante, a popular talk show that highlights social issues in India.

Lessons on communism and nation-states will need to include comparative investigations of how these ideologies and concepts are and were dwelt in Asia in addition to Europe.

When discussing the connection between music and identity, non-English pieces can be used to start up talks on how technology enables the exploration of both music and culture.

The Asia Within

Australia has some important assets for this task the countless thousands of students at undergraduate and post-graduate level from Asia trained in our high education institutes.

When tapped into and shared within our classrooms their experiences become part of our shared repository of knowledge concerning the numerous Asias, from several perspectives. The secret to all this is the idea of initiating and recognising Asia as part of everyday life in Australia.

Far beyond exotic holiday destinations, Asia is where a substantial portion of Australia’s future lies along with our university students need to become accustomed to and educated on the area’s diversity and many contradictions if we are to make sense of our place in our time within an Asian-centred world.