What students learn about Asia is outdated and needs to change

Asia literacy became official government policy in 2008. Julian Smith/AAP

In this series we’ll explore how to improve schools in Australia. Some of the most prominent experts in the sector tackle key questions, including why we are not seeing much progress; whether we are assessing children in the most effective way; why parents need to listen to what the evidence tells us, and much more.


The idea that all Australian students should develop a deeper understanding of Asian languages and cultures is not new. Some elements of this thinking go back to the 19th century.

Australia has consistently faced the dilemma of reconciling its colonial history with its geographical location within the Asian region.

In the 1970s, this dilemma led many policy advisors and educators to remind Australians of the importance of learning about Asia.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the reports by professor Ross Garnaut and the then the secretary of Queensland’s premier’s department, Kevin Rudd, used the idea of “Asia literacy” to highlight the economic importance of Asia to Australia’s national interests.

They once again challenged educational institutions to ensure that all Australians had a better understanding of Asian languages and cultures.

It was not until 2008 that the idea of Asia literacy became official government policy through the Melbourne Declaration on Educational Goals for Young Australians. This in turn inspired the Australian curriculum to identify ‘“Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia” as one of its three cross-curricular priorities.

Importance of learning about Asia cannot be denied

So embedded has the idea of Asia literacy now become that it is no longer the question of whether Australian students should learn about Asia and Australia-Asia relations, but how.

Our current approach to Asia literacy is exhausted and outdated, partly because it has been overtaken by events.

The profound economic, political and cultural changes that are now taking place in Asia, and in Australia, demand new ways of thinking about relations between the two.

Over the past two decades, most educational authorities have worked tirelessly to produce curriculum material, engage in advocacy, conduct study tours of Asia and develop professional development programs for teachers and educational leaders. Governments have invested heavily in the teaching of Asian languages.

While this activism has no doubt transformed the ways in which many young Australians think about Asia, the main problem with the current approach is that it remains trapped within an instrumentalist logic that interprets and justifies the need to learn about Asia largely in terms of its economic returns.

“Asia-relevant capabilities” are viewed as important for expanding trade links, developing new markets, and more generally, working in Asia.

This line of thinking is clearly evident in the Henry report on the Asian Century, launched with much fanfare in late 2011.

Current approach is narrowly-framed

While this report recognised the dynamic nature of Asian societies and stressed the need to forge people-to-people links, its business orientation effectively eschewed equally significant aspects of a changing Asia.

It paid little attention, for example, to the marginalised communities within Asia, and to the growing social inequalities across Asia resulting from globalisation.

It repeatedly romanticised the growing middle class in Asia for the enormous commercial opportunities it had created for Australia.

It suggested that for Australia to take advantage of these opportunities it needed to develop appropriate economic policy settings, with respect not only to trade and taxation but also education, skills development and migration.

In this way, education was embedded within a broader framework of economic instrumentalism.

There is of course nothing wrong with highlighting the importance of economic and strategic outcomes.

What is problematic, however, is the failure in the contemporary discourse of Asia literacy to also consider the cultural and social dimension of relations.

Risks of reinforcing binaries

To forge our relations with Asia largely in instrumental terms is to view Asians as a means to our economic and strategic ends.

It is effectively to assume Asia to be Australia’s Other - culturally and social distant.

It is to presuppose the theoretical assumptions surrounding an East-West binary, in which Asia is still seen as the East while Australia is assumed to be a proxy for the West.

This binary represents a colonial legacy that is no longer very helpful in interpreting Australia-Asia relations for a wide variety of reasons.

Australia’s changing demography

To begin with, it fails to take into account Australia’s changing demography: almost 17% of the Australian population is now of various Asian backgrounds.

Many Asian-Australians now have dual or multiple citizenships. They are therefore able to relate to both Australia and their countries of origin in ways that are significantly different from what they might have been in the 1980s.

Asia and Asians are also now part of Australia - not apart from it.

The discourse of Asia literacy based on the East-West binary makes it difficult for Asian-Australians to understand how such a discourse positions them in Australia, and how they should relate to the calls for them to learn about Asia.

For them, the impact of the new media and communication technologies is highly significant. This has enabled them to enjoy on-going connections with their “home” countries, while also re-casting the distinction between “here” and “there”, as their sense of identity and belonging are subjected to major shifts.

Expanding ties with Asia

At the same time, the level of mobility for work, education, business and tourism of all Australians has never been greater.

More than 200,000 Australians now live and work in Asia, and many more visit Asian countries on a regular basis. This has transformed the nature of Australia-Asia relations, both spatially and culturally.

The economic rise of Asia has also engendered a new sense of post-colonial confidence in many Asian countries that has redefined the ways in which Asians view Australia, and its attempts to develop closer relationships with them.

Global flows of ideas, capital and people have created conditions in which cultural fluidity and hybridity have become ubiquitous.

What these observations suggest is that while we readily recognise the new Asia to be culturally dynamic, and changing rapidly, we have yet to develop a more sophisticated understanding of Asia-Australia relations - and indeed also of the discourse of Asia literacy.

Asia literacy should not simply be about learning cultures and languages but should be about teaching the skills of interpreting and negotiating the possibilities of intercultural relations within Australia and beyond its borders.


Fazal Rizvi explores this theme further in a new book called Educating Australia: Challenges for the Decade Ahead.